Facts about the nine tribes of Mijikendas

The Mijikenda tribe is a Kenyan coastal Bantu tribe that consists of nine closely related sub-tribes.

Mijikenda tribe women dancing

In the past, the Mijikenda tribe was also referred to as the Nyika tribe, a near-derogatory term implying bush people.

"Mijikenda" literally means nine homes or nine homesteads (in Swahili), referring to the common ancestry of the Mijikenda people. The nine Mijikenda sub-tribes are believed to be nine different homes of the same tribe. Each sub-tribe speaks its own dialect of the Mijikenda language.

Among the nine Mijikenda sub-tribes, the Giriama and the Digo are the most well known, most populous, and therefore, most dominant along the Kenyan coast. The other seven sub-tribes are the Chonyi, Duruma, Jibana, Kambe, Kauma, Rabai and Ribe. It's very common for other Kenyan tribes to refer to all Mijikenda people simply as Giriama.

Origin and history of the Mijikenda people

Mijikenda oral history traces the origin of the tribe to the southern regions of Somalia. It is believed that the Mijikenda people escaped constant attacks from the Oromo and other Cushitic tribes, and settled in the coastal ridges that were easier to defend.

Historically, the Mijikenda have had close interactions with the Persian, Arab, and Portuguese traders who frequented their home territory along the Kenyan coast. This interaction and subsequent intermarriage with the Arabs gave birth to the Swahili culture and language. As a result, the Swahili language - Kiswahili - bears a close lexical similarity with all dialects of the Mijikenda people.

Culture and religion of the Mijikenda

The Mijikenda culture revolves around clans and age-sets. A Mijikenda clan consists of several family groups with a common patriarchal ancestor. Traditionally, each clan lived in one fortified village built in a cleared area of the forested ridges. A person's age-set determined their role and social standing within the clan and elaborate rituals were often held for members graduating from one age-set to another.

Each Mijikenda clan had their own sacred place known as kaya, a shrine for prayer, sacrifices and other religious rituals. These kayas were located deep in the forests and it was considered taboo to cut the trees and vegetation around them. The kaya elders, often members of the oldest age-set, were deemed to posses supernatural powers including the ability to make rain.

Like other Kenyan tribes today, Mijikenda people have assimilated to modern cultural practices, resulting in the disappearance of many of their traditional customs. Most Mijikenda people are now either Christians or Muslims; however, some still practice their traditional culture or a mixture of Christianity or Islam with their traditional religion. Islam is more widespread among the Digo than in the other Mijikenda sub-tribes.

The Mijikenda Kaya forests

Due to the kaya taboo, the forest regions around the Mijikenda kayas remained untouched for many years, thus preserving several rare or endangered plant species. However, in more recent years, people have started destroying these kaya forests to make way for agriculture, buildings and tourism activities. This forced the government and conservation agencies to institute measures for protecting the biological diversity found in the kayas by declaring them national monuments.

Mijikenda economic activities

Agriculture is the main economic activity of the Mijikenda people. Their most important cash crop is the coconut palm, whose products include oil extracts and palm wine. Its fronds are also used for roofing and as material for making baskets, mats, brooms and other weaved products.

Mijikenda tribe coconut tree house
Mijikenda tribe coconut tree farm

Other important cash crops include cashew nuts, oranges and mangos. Where favorable weather conditions allow, some Mijikenda people also grow annual crops such as maize, sorghum, millet, and beans.

Fishing is another important economic activity for the Mijikenda people. Mijikendas actively fish in the neighboring Indian Ocean, where their "daily catch" forms part of the seafood supplied to Kenya's coastal hotels and residents.

Miji kenda food

The Mijikenda, and more particularly the Digo tribe, are considered some of the best cooks among the Kenyan tribes. Wali, a popular Kenyan food, is also a staple of the Mijikenda tribe. Wali is rice prepared with coconut milk, giving it a sweet taste. Fish and other seafood are also common in Mijikenda cuisine.

Related Information

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